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David Kilgour: How Canada can help in Iran

The National Post, July 2, 2009

Among many e-messages coming from Iran in recent days, I found one from a woman especially moving: "... this is the most authentic, grassroots and beautiful movement from the people, by the people and for the people."

Iranians have spoken. Hundreds of thousands have participated in defiant demonstrations in Iran. There have also been rallies around the world, including one last weekend near Paris that drew 90,000 protesters against widespread election fraud and the fist of a regime unleashing terror.

The ayatollahs' election monitors have admitted that the number of ballots cast in 50 Iranian cities on June 12 exceeded the number of eligible voters, although they insisted -- lamely -- that this affected only three million votes. Adding to the mounting skepticism is an analysis by the respected Chatham House and Institute of Iranian Studies at St. Andrew's University in Scotland, which challenged the official results, based on a comparison of 2009 votes with those from the 2005 Iranian election.

The study also showed that in one-third of all provinces the official results, if accurate, would have required President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to win not only all "conservative" votes, all former centrist ones and all new voters, but up to 44% of formerly "reformist" votes, despite a decade of conflict between the two groups.

Among numerous other indications of ballot stuffing are reports that before the election a number of officials in the Interior Ministry (where the votes were counted) were fired because their loyalty to Ahmadinejad was questioned. Overall, the incumbent's declared victory by 11 million votes now appears to have been fabricated.

The ongoing confrontation of ballots and bullets across Iran underlines an important major issue of the 21st century: how the directive of the Koran -- "commanding right and forbidding wrong'' --is to be resolved in 48 nations with Muslim majority populations.

Recent voting trends are revealing: Indonesia, the largest Muslim democracy, held parliamentary elections in April 2009. Support for fundamentalist parties declined from 39% to 29.5%; the largest fundamentalist party, the Prosperous Justice Party, won only 8.4% of the votes. Most voters seemed more concerned about good governance and economic development.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party captured 20.5% of the popular vote (the President is also expected to win re-election in the upcoming presidential election). His strategy of co-opting the good governance agenda and launching a wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign was well received.

Similar trends can be derived from the elections during 2008 in Pakistan and Malaysia. In both cases, most of the electorate voted for parties that promised good governance. Parties that had purely religious agendas did not do well.

In Pakistan, votes went overwhelmingly to secular parties. In Malaysia, which has a 65% Muslim majority, voters resoundingly rejected the ruling party in four major states, despite its attempt to appeal to religious sentiments. For the first time since the country's independence in 1957, the government fared very poorly, because it was considered by voters to be corrupt and inefficient.

The elections in all three countries, as well as the more recent one in Lebanon, have important implications for other governments: The best thing they can do is to encourage good governance that will deliver on education, economic growth and stability.

Iran is a vitally important country to the world for many economic, geographic and security reasons. Its culture is thousands of years old, but it has a large and youthful population, with almost two-thirds of Iranians under the age of 30.

What has transpired in the country in recent weeks is home-grown -- the brave people of Iran should be applauded for trying to establish a government for all. They might not succeed this time, but the momentum for change, for greater freedom, is rising and cannot be easily stopped.

Theinternationalcommunity must consider with care its role in the future of Iran. Western governments should look for ways to be supportive without attempting to co-opt this movement into their own agendas. We hurt more than help if we are considered to be using the Iranians' movement to accomplish our own ends. Democracy will come to Iran; it will come not because of international agendas, but because the people of Iran want it and are prepared to sacrifice for it.

To its credit, the Harper government has taken a firm stand against the terror of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad. But we must do more.

We should support the demand of the Iranian opposition for a nuclear-weapons-free Iran and equal rights for women and minority ethnocultural communities and religions. Canada should encourage separation of church and state, instituting the rule of law and establishing independent judges, representative democracy and good relations with Iran's neighbours and the world. A first step here would be to follow the lead of the 27 EU countries in removing the Iranian opposition from the list of terrorist organizations.

We can also support the work of Iranian-Canadians and others in their efforts toward good governance and the rule of law. For example, Canada should play a more active role in the work of Stop Child Executions, a group which is led by the Iranianborn Canadian, Nazanin Afshin-Jam.

As well, Canada could propose additional UN sanctions against Iran's government until an election can be held with sufficient independent monitoring to provide a fair process.

In her email quoted at the beginning of this essay, the young Iranian woman also spoke of "a spirit of fraternity, determination, resistance, courage, solidarity and generosity that no words can describe." Iranians are making sacrifices for the basic rights of us all. This is a spirit that the international community should embrace and support.

David Kilgour is the cochair of Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran, a member of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue of Ottawa and a former MP.

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